The Descent of Man – Day 98 of 151

Lophornis ornatus, male and female (from Brehm).

Figure 48: Lophornis ornatus, male and female (from Brehm).

Spathura underwoodi, male and female (from Brehm).

Figure 49: Spathura underwoodi, male and female (from Brehm).

Male humming-birds (Figs. 48 and 49) almost vie with birds of paradise in their beauty, as every one will admit who has seen Mr. Gould’s splendid volumes, or his rich collection. It is very remarkable in how many different ways these birds are ornamented. Almost every part of their plumage has been taken advantage of, and modified; and the modifications have been carried, as Mr. Gould shewed me, to a wonderful extreme in some species belonging to nearly every sub-group. Such cases are curiously like those which we see in our fancy breeds, reared by man for the sake of ornament; certain individuals originally varied in one character, and other individuals of the same species in other characters; and these have been seized on by man and much augmented–as shewn by the tail of the fantail-pigeon, the hood of the jacobin, the beak and wattle of the carrier, and so forth. The sole difference between these cases is that in the one, the result is due to man’s selection, whilst in the other, as with humming-birds, birds of paradise, etc., it is due to the selection by the females of the more beautiful males.

I will mention only one other bird, remarkable from the extreme contrast in colour between the sexes, namely the famous bell-bird (Chasmorhynchus niveus) of S. America, the note of which can be distinguished at the distance of nearly three miles, and astonishes every one when first hearing it. The male is pure white, whilst the female is dusky-green; and white is a very rare colour in terrestrial species of moderate size and inoffensive habits. The male, also, as described by Waterton, has a spiral tube, nearly three inches in length, which rises from the base of the beak. It is jet-black, dotted over with minute downy feathers. This tube can be inflated with air, through a communication with the palate; and when not inflated hangs down on one side. The genus consists of four species, the males of which are very distinct, whilst the females, as described by Mr. Sclater in a very interesting paper, closely resemble each other, thus offering an excellent instance of the common rule that within the same group the males differ much more from each other than do the females. In a second species (C. nudicollis) the male is likewise snow-white, with the exception of a large space of naked skin on the throat and round the eyes, which during the breeding-season is of a fine green colour. In a third species (C. tricarunculatus) the head and neck alone of the male are white, the rest of the body being chestnut-brown, and the male of this species is provided with three filamentous projections half as long as the body–one rising from the base of the beak, and the two others from the corners of the mouth. (75. Mr. Sclater, ‘Intellectual Observer,’ Jan. 1867. Waterton’s ‘Wanderings,’ p. 118. See also Mr. Salvin’s interesting paper, with a plate, in the ‘Ibis,’ 1865, p. 90.)

The coloured plumage and certain other ornaments of the adult males are either retained for life, or are periodically renewed during the summer and breeding-season. At this same season the beak and naked skin about the head frequently change colour, as with some herons, ibises, gulls, one of the bell-birds just noticed, etc. In the white ibis, the cheeks, the inflatable skin of the throat, and the basal portion of the beak then become crimson. (76. ‘Land and Water,’ 1867, p. 394.) In one of the rails, Gallicrex cristatus, a large red caruncle is developed during this period on the head of the male. So it is with a thin horny crest on the beak of one of the pelicans, P. erythrorhynchus; for, after the breeding-season, these horny crests are shed, like horns from the heads of stags, and the shore of an island in a lake in Nevada was found covered with these curious exuviae. (77. Mr. D.G. Elliot, in ‘Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1869, p. 589.)

Changes of colour in the plumage according to the season depend, firstly on a double annual moult, secondly on an actual change of colour in the feathers themselves, and thirdly on their dull-coloured margins being periodically shed, or on these three processes more or less combined. The shedding of the deciduary margins may be compared with the shedding of their down by very young birds; for the down in most cases arises from the summits of the first true feathers. (78. Nitzsch’s ‘Pterylography,’ edited by P.L. Sclater, Ray Society, 1867, p. 14.)

With respect to the birds which annually undergo a double moult, there are, firstly, some kinds, for instance snipes, swallow-plovers (Glareolae), and curlews, in which the two sexes resemble each other, and do not change colour at any season. I do not know whether the winter plumage is thicker and warmer than the summer plumage, but warmth seems the most probable end attained of a double moult, where there is no change of colour. Secondly, there are birds, for instance, certain species of Totanus and other Grallatores, the sexes of which resemble each other, but in which the summer and winter plumage differ slightly in colour. The difference, however, in these cases is so small that it can hardly be an advantage to them; and it may, perhaps, be attributed to the direct action of the different conditions to which the birds are exposed during the two seasons. Thirdly, there are many other birds the sexes of which are alike, but which are widely different in their summer and winter plumage. Fourthly, there are birds the sexes of which differ from each other in colour; but the females, though moulting twice, retain the same colours throughout the year, whilst the males undergo a change of colour, sometimes a great one, as with certain bustards. Fifthly and lastly, there are birds the sexes of which differ from each other in both their summer and winter plumage; but the male undergoes a greater amount of change at each recurrent season than the female–of which the ruff (Machetes pugnax) offers a good instance.

With respect to the cause or purpose of the differences in colour between the summer and winter plumage, this may in some instances, as with the ptarmigan (79. The brown mottled summer plumage of the ptarmigan is of as much importance to it, as a protection, as the white winter plumage; for in Scandinavia during the spring, when the snow has disappeared, this bird is known to suffer greatly from birds of prey, before it has acquired its summer dress: see Wilhelm von Wright, in Lloyd, ‘Game Birds of Sweden,’ 1867, p. 125.), serve during both seasons as a protection. When the difference between the two plumages is slight it may perhaps be attributed, as already remarked, to the direct action of the conditions of life. But with many birds there can hardly be a doubt that the summer plumage is ornamental, even when both sexes are alike. We may conclude that this is the case with many herons, egrets, etc., for they acquire their beautiful plumes only during the breeding-season. Moreover, such plumes, top-knots, etc., though possessed by both sexes, are occasionally a little more developed in the male than in the female; and they resemble the plumes and ornaments possessed by the males alone of other birds. It is also known that confinement, by affecting the reproductive system of male birds, frequently checks the development of their secondary sexual characters, but has no immediate influence on any other characters; and I am informed by Mr. Bartlett that eight or nine specimens of the Knot (Tringa canutus) retained their unadorned winter plumage in the Zoological Gardens throughout the year, from which fact we may infer that the summer plumage, though common to both sexes, partakes of the nature of the exclusively masculine plumage of many other birds. (80. In regard to the previous statements on moulting, see, on snipes, etc., Macgillivray, ‘Hist. Brit. Birds,’ vol. iv. p. 371; on Glareolae, curlews, and bustards, Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. pp. 615, 630, 683; on Totanus, ibid. p. 700; on the plumes of herons, ibid. p. 738, and Macgillivray, vol. iv. pp. 435 and 444, and Mr. Stafford Allen, in the ‘Ibis,’ vol. v. 1863, p. 33.)

From the foregoing facts, more especially from neither sex of certain birds changing colour during either annual moult, or changing so slightly that the change can hardly be of any service to them, and from the females of other species moulting twice yet retaining the same colours throughout the year, we may conclude that the habit of annually moulting twice has not been acquired in order that the male should assume an ornamental character during the breeding-season; but that the double moult, having been originally acquired for some distinct purpose, has subsequently been taken advantage of in certain cases for gaining a nuptial plumage.

It appears at first sight a surprising circumstance that some closely-allied species should regularly undergo a double annual moult, and others only a single one. The ptarmigan, for instance, moults twice or even thrice in the year, and the blackcock only once: some of the splendidly coloured honey-suckers (Nectariniae) of India and some sub-genera of obscurely coloured pipits (Anthus) have a double, whilst others have only a single annual moult. (81. On the moulting of the ptarmigan, see Gould’s ‘Birds of Great Britain.’ On the honey-suckers, Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. i. pp. 359, 365, 369. On the moulting of Anthus, see Blyth, in ‘Ibis,’ 1867, p. 32.) But the gradations in the manner of moulting, which are known to occur with various birds, shew us how species, or whole groups, might have originally acquired their double annual moult, or having once gained the habit, have again lost it. With certain bustards and plovers the vernal moult is far from complete, some feathers being renewed, and some changed in colour. There is also reason to believe that with certain bustards and rail-like birds, which properly undergo a double moult, some of the older males retain their nuptial plumage throughout the year. A few highly modified feathers may merely be added during the spring to the plumage, as occurs with the disc-formed tail-feathers of certain drongos (Bhringa) in India, and with the elongated feathers on the back, neck, and crest of certain herons. By such steps as these, the vernal moult might be rendered more and more complete, until a perfect double moult was acquired. Some of the birds of paradise retain their nuptial feathers throughout the year, and thus have only a single moult; others cast them directly after the breeding-season, and thus have a double moult; and others again cast them at this season during the first year, but not afterwards; so that these latter species are intermediate in their manner of moulting. There is also a great difference with many birds in the length of time during which the two annual plumages are retained; so that the one might come to be retained for the whole year, and the other completely lost. Thus in the spring Machetes pugnax retains his ruff for barely two months. In Natal the male widow-bird (Chera progne) acquires his fine plumage and long tail-feathers in December or January, and loses them in March; so that they are retained only for about three months. Most species, which undergo a double moult, keep their ornamental feathers for about six months. The male, however, of the wild Gallus bankiva retains his neck-hackles for nine or ten months; and when these are cast off, the underlying black feathers on the neck are fully exposed to view. But with the domesticated descendant of this species, the neck-hackles of the male are immediately replaced by new ones; so that we here see, as to part of the plumage, a double moult changed under domestication into a single moult. (82. For the foregoing statements in regard to partial moults, and on old males retaining their nuptial plumage, see Jerdon, on bustards and plovers, in ‘Birds of India,’ vol. iii. pp. 617, 637, 709, 711. Also Blyth in ‘Land and Water,’ 1867, p. 84. On the moulting of Paradisea, see an interesting article by Dr. W. Marshall, ‘Archives Neerlandaises,’ tom. vi. 1871. On the Vidua, ‘Ibis,’ vol. iii. 1861, p. 133. On the Drongo-shrikes, Jerdon, ibid. vol. i. p. 435. On the vernal moult of the Herodias bubulcus, Mr. S.S. Allen, in ‘Ibis,’ 1863, p. 33. On Gallus bankiva, Blyth, in ‘Annals and Mag. of Natural History,’ vol. i. 1848, p. 455; see, also, on this subject, my ‘Variation of Animals under Domestication,’ vol. i. p. 236.)

The common drake (Anas boschas), after the breeding-season, is well known to lose his male plumage for a period of three months, during which time he assumes that of the female. The male pin-tail duck (Anas acuta) loses his plumage for the shorter period of six weeks or two months; and Montagu remarks that “this double moult within so short a time is a most extraordinary circumstance, that seems to bid defiance to all human reasoning.” But the believer in the gradual modification of species will be far from feeling surprise at finding gradations of all kinds. If the male pin-tail were to acquire his new plumage within a still shorter period, the new male feathers would almost necessarily be mingled with the old, and both with some proper to the female; and this apparently is the case with the male of a not distantly-allied bird, namely the Merganser serrator, for the males are said to “undergo a change of plumage, which assimilates them in some measure to the female.” By a little further acceleration in the process, the double moult would be completely lost. (83. See Macgillivray, ‘Hist. British Birds’ (vol. v. pp. 34, 70, and 223), on the moulting of the Anatidae, with quotations from Waterton and Montagu. Also Yarrell, ‘History of British Birds,’ vol. iii. p. 243.)

Some male birds, as before stated, become more brightly coloured in the spring, not by a vernal moult, but either by an actual change of colour in the feathers, or by their obscurely-coloured deciduary margins being shed. Changes of colour thus caused may last for a longer or shorter time. In the Pelecanus onocrotalus a beautiful rosy tint, with lemon-coloured marks on the breast, overspreads the whole plumage in the spring; but these tints, as Mr. Sclater states, “do not last long, disappearing generally in about six weeks or two months after they have been attained.” Certain finches shed the margins of their feathers in the spring, and then become brighter coloured, while other finches undergo no such change. Thus the Fringilla tristis of the United States (as well as many other American species) exhibits its bright colours only when the winter is past, whilst our goldfinch, which exactly represents this bird in habits, and our siskin, which represents it still more closely in structure, undergo no such annual change. But a difference of this kind in the plumage of allied species is not surprising, for with the common linnet, which belongs to the same family, the crimson forehead and breast are displayed only during the summer in England, whilst in Madeira these colours are retained throughout the year. (84. On the pelican, see Sclater, in ‘Proc. Zool. Soc.’ 1868, p. 265. On the American finches, see Audubon, ‘Ornithological Biography,’ vol. i. pp. 174, 221, and Jerdon, ‘Birds of India,’ vol. ii. p. 383. On the Fringilla cannabina of Madeira, Mr. E. Vernon Harcourt, ‘Ibis,’ vol. v. 1863, p. 230.)

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